The aspect of modern Economic thinking I find most depressing is the lack of any emphasis on play or fun or family and friendships. An economic worldview has evolved that sucks the meaningful marrow out of life. The big question we should be asking Is whether our economic system is serving us or are most of us consigned to serving it?
We pay homage to the little scrutinised goal of economic growth as progress towards some undefined nivarna on earth. Yet few of us understand what this concept of economic growth actually means. It is a narrow obsession with ensuring that as a nation we make and consume more material stuff. This obsession is calculated by a statistic called GDP. Even Simon Kuznets, who developed this statistic in the 1930s, warned that as a measure of human happiness and well being it was retarded. Is this word still acceptable?
Yet to question this current economic orthodoxy invites ridicule and dismissal even though it may be destroying the planet we inhabit. Not to worry, economic growth and progress should fix that. Leave it to market forces. Yeah, right.
This economic ideology has some parallels with the overwhelming tyranny of Christian belief in old Europe. It is a world view that is dangerous to challenge. Ok , criticising GDP and economic growth in public is unlikely to get your head lopped off or your height extended on an inquisition rack. You are more likely to retain your testicles, but only just.
But we should be seriously challenging the current Economic orthodoxy. Maybe we are running so fast and hard to serve the system that few of us have the time or energy to stick our heads up and question it. The technical term for this is the ” hedonic treadmill.” Many kiwis these days are too busy paying off huge mortgages on overpriced weatherboard houses that bear a striking resemblance to the affordable old houses our grandparents once owned. But let’s not question the impact or wisdom of financial deregulation. It’s all about growth ,efficiency and market forces.
So we blindly accept the obsession with market forces and economic growth measured by a dubious statistic called GDP. But we are only a small nation. We can’t go against the prevailing world view of bigger stronger countries. That could invite economic disaster. Heaven forbid, it might mean we end up with less stuff to consume. Best just to do as every other nation does. So mainstream politics becomes defined by market lite and market full cream. It has become bland and homogenised.
At an individual level, this obsession with economic growth means we all need to work harder and smarter to enhance the holy metric of GDP. It is all about efficiency , productivity and output, stupid. It is about maximising our consumption because this what defines us as humans. Any standard economic textbook tells us this.
Our education system is geared towards serving this goal. Learning for learnings sake is a quaint old fashioned virtue. A wasted pastime of ancient gentry. A luxury of the old aristocracy. Learning these days needs to serve a purpose. Formal learning must be quantified and career orientated from an early age. Corporate buzzwords such as smart goals, KPIs and achievement objectives permeate the formal learning environment, even in pre schools. The thought of learning for fun and enjoyment is a marginal concept. A luxury for the very young and the very old. It is important to impose business concepts on formal learning. This ensures conformity and efficiency. Young people must learn to be focused and goal driven to allow them to progress in a linear upwards fashion throughout their lives.
In 1930, John Maynard Keynes wrote ” The Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.” it was an optimistic piece. He forsaw an affluent future in which leisure rather than work would define our lives. The economic system would eventually allow people greater freedom to choose how they used their precious time on this earth.
Unfortunately Keynes failed to foresee how obsessed we would become with the cult of economic growth and the manic materialism that goes with it.
No standard economic textbook refers to such frivolous terms as play and fun, let alone family and friendships. These are generally not quantifiable in dollar terms therefore they add little to our economic well being. Human beings in modern Economics are strictly defined by their production and consumption. Many of us have inadvertently been indoctrinated into this world view. It is sadly limiting and could ultimately destroy us as a species.
Peter Lyons teaches Economics at Saint Peters College in Epsom and has written several Economics textbooks.